A better class of woman for a lower rate of pay

The first women employed in the civil service were in effect TUPE'd over. They came to work in the civil service by the nationalisation of the Electric Telegraph Company. (ETC) The employment of women in the ETC was seen as a way to show loyalty to the Crown rather than because of any desire to allow women to work.

This work was considered suitable for middle-class unmarried daughters until they found a suitable marriage. Their wages would have been given to their father.

In a report to The Playfair Commission the postmaster general Mr Scudamore commented "the wages offered will attract male operators from an inferior class of the community and will attract females from a superior class." He also commented "women are less disposed to get together to extort higher wages."

The first "direct appointment" of a female civil servant was in 1873. Jane "Jeannie" senior was appointed as an assistant inspector of workhouses. This was an unpopular move and fiercely resisted.

The marriage bar

In 1875 "the marriage bar" was introduced. This meant that married women, unless they were a widow, were not allowed to work. Any single woman who married had to resign. By November 1895 this was extended to all established female labour in public departments.

Also in 1875 women were employed by the GPO as part of the newly-created daily balance section. This again was very unpopular with the "gentleman" of the office.

The Royal Commission of 1912 when looking at the conditions under which women should be employed in the civil service; stated that the salaries of women should be fixed on a lower scale than men, that female clerics should be accommodated separately from mail clerks and that the object is not to give women employment but to take advantage of the services of women when that will promote the best interests of the civil service.

During the First World War the numbers of women in the civil service rapidly increased. By 1919 there were nearly 170,000 women civil servants: a massive increase from the 201 of 1870 and the 33,000 in 1911. Due to this increase the segregation of men and women was impossible to maintain.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 said that no one shall be disqualified from any civil or judicial office or profession on the grounds of sex. However, there was an exemption that meant it was still possible to reserve civil service posts solely for men.

The Home Office in 1920 made two pioneering decisions in respect to women in the workplace. They decided that women should be promoted on the same basis as men. and in the factory department the men's and women's sides of the inspectorates were amalgamated into one single organisation. This meant that women could apply for all posts for the first time.

Competing on equal terms

Women were allowed in 1925 to compete on equal terms for higher posts for the first time. 80 men and 27 women applied and of those 19 men and 3 women were appointed.

Despite the marriage bar 8 women civil servants were retained after marriage between 1934 and 1938.  

Married women working in the civil service was such a newsworthy item that in September 1958, The Times reported that in the administrative class there were 36 married women and two were working while bringing up families.

The marriage bar itself finally abolished in 1946. This was possibly in part due to the labour shortages caused by the Second World War meaning married women were also expected to do their bit by taking on more work. Although no longer required to resign on marriage the civil service still paid within a gratuity if they did so until the 1970s.

The first female permanent secretary Baroness Sharp was appointed in 1955 and a second in 1959. However, this was not replicated in later years until the late 1990s.

Equal pay

Through negotiations by the civil service trade unions differential pay, where women were paid 20% lower than married men, began to be phased out and full pay equality was reached by 1977. However, despite this there are still pay inequalities and PCS has taken and will continue to take equal pay claims to court. PCS won an equal pay claim on behalf of members in the Scottish Prison Service.

Over the years the number of women in the civil service has increased however, it is still far more likely for women to be employed in the lower grades. 53.9% of UK civil servants are women but only 44.2% of senior civil servants are women with only 27.5% of permanent secretaries being female. While we have come a long way in 150 years we still have a way to go.

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